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Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)
Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)

Harper wins reprieve Add to ...

The separatist Bloc Québécois that Stephen Harper derides as politically untouchable has bought the Conservative Prime Minister a few more weeks in office.

The Bloc have agreed to support the minority Tory government in a key confidence vote Friday, a move that came as the likelihood of a fall election appears to be shrinking.

The Conservatives remain vulnerable to a Liberal-led defeat in late September or early October. That's when rival Michael Ignatieff will try to topple the Tories in a second confidence test, one that would also likely see Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe vote against the government.

Mr. Duceppe's decision to back the Tories this week is based solely on the fact that Friday's confidence vote concerns the extremely popular $1.3-billion home renovation tax credit. The Quebec politician wants to demonstrate he can deliver on bread-and-butter issues that matter to his voters, but is careful to avoid the impression his support for the Tories is anything but fleeting.

"All in all, if we're asked if we have confidence in [the]government, the answer is no," Mr. Duceppe told reporters.

The minority Conservative government is 12 seats shy of a majority and requires the support or abstention of one opposition party to survive confidence votes.

Privately, Tory strategists are wondering if the NDP's evident lack of enthusiasm for a fall election might keep them in office for months, rather than just weeks.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, whose party has slipped to 12 per cent in the polls, according to one recent opinion survey, had already been expected to back the Tories in Friday's confidence vote before the Bloc stepped up to the plate.

The NDP has latched on to more generous employment insurance measures announced by the Tories this week as a reason to keep the Conservatives alive. The party says it would like to see the EI aid for older workers implemented now rather than delayed by an election.

Although Mr. Layton has not yet tipped his hand on NDP voting intentions, two senior NDP MPs - Thomas Mulcair and Yvon Godin - have been quoted as saying they expect to side with the Tories Friday.

What's not clear yet is whether the NDP's desire to avoid an election will extend to the second confidence vote late this month or early October. NDP MP Joe Comartin, however, said the party is keen to see the EI cash flow before an election. "If I can get more EI money into my riding, into my city and district … and that means that we run a prolonged Parliament till we get that … then we'll do it."

Mr. Harper may find himself kept in power by either the Bloc or the NDP or both - the two parties that he disparaged the Liberals for allying with last fall. The Conservative strategy for the next election campaign is to remind voters of the Liberals' failed and unpopular attempt to oust the Tories from power in December, 2008, with the backing of what Mr. Harper called the "socialists and separatists" in the NDP and Bloc.

Tuesday, however, in a CTV interview, the Prime Minister played down the implications of possible support from the Bloc or NDP. He said the formula for staying in office is delivering politically popular measures that other parties can't help but support. "As long as we're doing good things, at least one of [the other parties]will support us, because none of them want to be blamed for an election that the public doesn't want."

The Liberals will continue their pre-election pressure on the Tories despite the Friday reprieve for Mr. Harper. It's expected the Liberals will release another election-style TV ad over the weekend, the third in a series highlighting different issues.

The House of Commons is not meeting next week because the Prime Minister will be in Pittsburgh for Group of 20 economic meetings. Mr. Ignatieff, however, will be touring. He is speaking to the Toronto Board of Trade Monday, making what the Liberals are calling a "major speech" on Canada's economic future.

He is also travelling to North Bay next week to participate in a plowing match.

Toronto Liberal MP Bob Rae said it was a "little strange" to see other opposition parties making the decision that "they now have confidence in the government."

But he said the Liberals still have work to do before an election, "talking to Canadians about why we think there's a fundamental choice now between us and the Conservatives."

With a report from Daniel Leblanc

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